RBH CEO Gareth Swarbrick faces mounting pressures to quit his £185k position after death of Awaab Ishak

Date published: 17 November 2022

Gareth Swarbrick, the Chief Executive of Rochdale Boroughwide Housing, is facing growing pressures to resign after the tragic – and preventable – death of two-year-old Awaab Ishak.

Awaab died in December 2020 as a result of a severe respiratory condition due to prolonged exposure to mould in his home, which was managed by Rochdale Boroughwide Housing.

Awaab's parents had previously made complaints about the black mould present in the kitchen and bathroom and had also made requests for re-housing.

His father had been told to paint over the mould, whilst a 2020 report by RBH claimed the majority of the mould was caused by ‘lifestyle and bathing habits’.

Mr Swarbrick said he was “truly devastated about Awaab’s death and the things we got wrong” adding that RBH would “continue to learn hard lessons from this.”

He noted the landlord “didn’t recognise the level of risk to a little boy’s health from the mould in the family’s home” and “allowed a legal disrepair process, widely used in the housing sector, to get in the way of promptly tackling the mould.”

"We will take responsibility for sharing what we have learnt about the impact to health of damp, condensation and mould with the social housing sector and beyond,” Mr Swarbrick continued.

Rochdale Borough Council's cabinet member for housing, Councillor Daniel Meredith, has called for Mr Swarbrick to resign.

In a letter, he said: “As the lead member for housing in our borough I feel that I am left with little option but to ask you to reflect on your position. I say this because I have no confidence that you and your board are equipped to win back the confidence of your tenants.”

Speaking on Wednesday (16 November), housing secretary Michael Gove said it “beggared belief” that Mr Swarbrick was still in his £185,000-a-year post, whilst Rochdale MP Sir Tony Lloyd spoke in the House of Commons, saying that “the issue of mould growth in properties both private, social housing etc. is a real one.”

Mr Lloyd added: “This has implications that go way beyond this tragic case of the two-year-old boy in my constituency.”

The Housing Ombudsman, Richard Blakeway, has written to Mr Swarbrick, following the coroner’s verdict.


Awaab Ishak
Awaab Ishak


The Ombudsman has reviewed the current casework about the landlord and instructed his team to expedite three investigations.

For the first time, the investigation team will use a power in the Housing Ombudsman Scheme that enables them to gather any information required including interviews with staff.

The letter also says he will also be exercising his powers to carry out a further investigation to see if this complaint is “indicative of wider failure within the landlord.”

Over the weeks prior to his death, Awaab developed flu-like symptoms and had difficulty breathing. On 19 December 2020, he was taken to Rochdale Urgent Care Centre due to his difficulty breathing and was then transferred to Royal Oldham Hospital, where he was given supporting treatment and then discharged.

Awaab continued with difficulties at home and his breathing became worse, so his parents requested a GP and gave him medication. As his presentation was worsening, he was taken to Rochdale Urgent Care Centre on 21 December 2020, where he was found to be in respiratory failure.

He was transferred to Royal Oldham Hospital where upon arrival he was in cardiac arrest and sadly was pronounced dead on the same day.

The court heard how Awaab’s health visitor sent a letter to RBH in July 2020 supporting a request for the family to move due to damp and mould. She expressed her concern over Awaab living in the flat and highlighted the health issues that the mould could cause him: the pathologist who carried out post-mortem found evidence of fungus in the little boy’s blood and lungs.

An expert on mould and fungi found “extensive mould” on the walls and ceilings of the bathroom and kitchen and also found mould in a cupboard in the bedroom. He told the court that the flat would have been contaminated “for some considerable time.”

Rochdale Council building surveyor, Daniel McVey, inspected the property two days after Awaab’s death and told the court that it was not fit for human habitation without repairs being carried out.


Awaab Ishak
Awaab Ishak


Despite this, Awaab’s parents had to continue living in the flat following his death following unsuccessful requests for rehousing, in spite of Awaab’s mother being pregnant at the time.

Christian Weaver, counsel for the family, told ITV’s Good Morning Britain that “we often see these things happening but so little accountability.”

Speaking after the inquest, he said: “Awaab’s parents did everything within their powers to try and have the issues within their home fixed – however time and time again – their pleas were ignored. Awaab’s parents have shown remarkable dignity throughout the inquest process.

“Their only ask is that, once and for all, the conditions for those in social housing can be improved – particularly where damp and mould is concerned, and particularly where the occupiers of the homes are refugees and may not be as aware of systems and processes here in the UK.”

A spokesperson for Rochdale Boroughwide Housing confirmed: "We can confirm receipt of the Housing Ombudsman’s letter, and will meet with Mr Blakeway or a member of his team at the earliest opportunity to discuss these three cases.

“We can confirm a conversation has taken place between Mr Swarbrick and the Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities Mr Gove this afternoon. We cannot provide a further comment at this time.”

Do you have a story for us?

Let us know by emailing news@rochdaleonline.co.uk
All contact will be treated in confidence.

To contact the Rochdale Online news desk, email news@rochdaleonline.co.uk or visit our news submission page.

To get the latest news on your desktop or mobile, follow Rochdale Online on Twitter and Facebook.

While you are here...

...we have a small favour to ask; would you support Rochdale Online and join other residents making a contribution, from just £3 per month?

Rochdale Online offers completely independent local journalism with free access. If you enjoy the independent news and other free services we offer (event listings and free community websites for example), please consider supporting us financially and help Rochdale Online to continue to provide local engaging content for years to come. Thank you.

Support Rochdale Online